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2016 May

York: Britain's Heartland

“It’s smelly,” Lauren’s daughter Rachel said when she heard Peter, Ross, and I would be visiting York’s Viking museum the next day. Hmm, I wondered what it smelled like.

“Don’t ask,” Lauren said.

After a train journey north from London, my family arrived at our friends’ home in Huddersfield, an hour west of York. Peter and I had known Lauren and Steve when they lived in Chesapeake before returning to the UK to raise their four children closer to their families. We’d talked about visiting our British friends ever since and now here we were. In fact, Lauren planned to treat us to an American Thanksgiving feast after we returned from our day trip to York.

But tonight we would enjoy typical British pub fare. The nine of us—Lauren, Steve, and their four kids, along with Peter, Ross, and me—bundled up and drove through the dark, foggy November night to their favorite neighborhood pub. Inside the atmosphere was cheery and warm, and we squeezed together on a long table and ordered frosty ales for the grown-ups and soft drinks for the kids.

The menu featured typical pub food, including bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, Cornish pastry, and cottage pie, and we tried a bit of everything. The best part was catching up with Lauren and Steve—although the beer was a close second!

Our journey through Britain continued the next day as we traveled to York by train through the rolling Yorkshire countryside. York has always represented the quintessential Britain experience to me. Soaked in history, this thriving city of 205,000 features several noteworthy attractions, as well as a charming ambiance, which even the November weather couldn’t dampen.

Our visit began with a stop in the York Visitor Center located in the train station. There we picked up our York Pass, which offers admission to many of the city’s sights. To get an overview we decided to take the sightseeing bus that circles the city, stopping at various sites throughout the day. Ross happily climbed up to the open-air top level of the double-decker bus and sat in the fine drizzle with his hood pulled up while Peter and I found a seat under a protective windshield that sheltered us from the rain and gave us a wonderful view of the city.

As we rode around the perimeter, the sun broke through the clouds, and York shone like a warm jewel in the autumn sun. Towering above the city, York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, beckoned us with its spires that reach toward the heavens. We hopped off the bus to explore this incredible masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Inside we asked for a children’s guide and received an informative booklet that led us through the cathedral in search of gargoyles and stained glass windows, while offering tidbits of information about the Minster that made our visit a true learning experience.

Down below the cathedral another world awaits, for the Minster was built on the site of Roman ruins, remnants of the period from approximately 55 BC through the fifth century when the Roman Empire spread across Northern Europe. An audio guide offers a compelling tour through the Minster’s Undercroft, where you can walk along Roman streets, explore crypts, and see ancient history up close. Ross loved running through the passageways beneath the Minster, stopping here and there to view an exhibit and once to toss a penny in a well and make a wish.

I wished the sunny weather would still be present when we emerged from the bowels of the Minster, and luckily my wish was granted. But we didn’t savor the sunshine for long because the next attraction we visited was back underground, and it actually smelled like the bowels of the earth.

That’s right, we found our way to the smelly Viking museum we’d heard about from Rachel. York was actually named by the Vikings, who invaded in the eighth century and made the city an important trading post for two hundred years. The history of this period is told in JORVIK Viking Centre.

Our trip into the past began with a descent underground where we boarded a moving time-capsule ride through a Viking village. Earphones offered language choices and included a unique commentary for kids. The ride took us along a recreated Viking street, where various activities of daily life were displayed—from preparing food to doing chores to playing—and even a multi-sensory exhibit of the village outhouse. Sniff, sniff, ewww.

After our ride we wandered through exhibits detailing the excavations that occurred at this site. From 1976 to 1981 archaeologists uncovered tens of thousands of Viking artifacts, some of the world’s best preserved. These bits of pottery, weapons, and bone offered clues into the Viking culture, which flourished more than a thousand years ago. Ross and I tried on some heavy armor and practiced writing our names in Saxon runes.

Back above ground, we found the sun still shining and realized we were starving. A fish-and-chips stand nearby offered the perfect antidote to our hunger. A bit greasy, the hot fish and chips nevertheless tasted delicious with a sprinkle of malt vinegar and a good bit of salt.

After lunch we walked through the city center famous for its medieval architecture and winding alleys called “snickleways,” which were used as shortcuts by foot-bound medieval folk. One of the most picturesque parts of town is called the Shambles, where quaint, colorful buildings protrude at crazy angles over the street, built to keep sunlight from spoiling the meat displayed in the shops.

Next we explored the ancient walls that surround York. Built by the Romans, they’re among the longest city walls still extant in all of Europe. A path along the top provided phenomenal views of this historic city. Just outside the city center the Yorkshire Museum stands surrounded by lovely botanical gardens. The museum houses many of the city’s archeological finds and would have been worth a visit. However, we were running out of time, so after a brief stroll through the gardens, where the ruins of an old abbey stood starkly against the blue sky, we hurried over to the last attraction on our list.

York is home to the National Railway Museum, where you can easily spend a day exploring the evolution of trains from steam-powered locomotives to today’s bullet trains. Names of the engines evoke times gone by and roll off the tongue like a wistful tune: Puffing Billy, Coppernob, Ramsbottom Tank, Gladstone, Henry Oakley, Lode Star, and Iron Duke.

The National Railway Museum offers an extensive array of trains and memorabilia, and we quickly discovered we hadn’t allowed enough time to enjoy it. With barely an hour to spend before catching our train back to Lauren’s, we were fortunate to watch the locomotive turntable, which demonstrated how engines are turned around.

Afterwards Ross grabbed me by the hand and begged me to take him to the children’s activity area, which involved a long walk past dozens of trains. There tucked in a far corner of this sprawling museum a large, cheery room full of fun activities for kids awaited. Ross immediately found foam shapes that, when pieced together correctly, built an arch sturdy enough for even me to walk across. Other activities teach little ones about wind tunnels, track building, train signals, and much more.

But our train to Lauren’s village was due to leave, so we scurried to the nearby station and jumped aboard for an hour-long ride past picturesque Yorkshire towns as dusk fell on the heartland of Britain. Steve greeted us when we pulled into the village station, and our busy day came to a lovely end as we gathered around the kitchen table to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast lovingly prepared by Lauren.

“I wanted my children to experience a real Thanksgiving dinner,” she explained, admitting that since leaving the U.S. she hadn’t prepared such a monumental feast. Turkey and all the trimmings graced their table, and our families ate hungrily. In my heart I gave thanks for the opportunity to travel and to meet old friends along the way. 

For more information, visit: (The National Railway Museum)

Hotels, guesthouses, and self-catering cottages offer lodgings as you explore the region, which includes castles, abbey ruins, the rugged Yorkshire coast, and two national parks. Request the York Visitor’s Guide for more information on attractions, accommodations, dining, and shopping.


Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and publisher of Tidewater Family Plus magazine. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.


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